On my flight home from Fiji recently, I was struck by the continuing negativism of the arguments regarding Australian relations with Fiji. Rowan Callick’s commentary in the Weekend Australian is another example of a tough line on Fiji without any positive proposals. The one element of novelty in Callick’s piece, however, is the suggestion that Carr’s ‘soft’ approach toward the Government of Commodore Voreqe (‘Frank’) Bainimarama is the reason why Fiji has slipped the leash and gone feral recently. But this belies the evidence of the past six years. When has the Bainimarama Government ever been on an Australian leash or even responded positively to pressure from Canberra?
Having viewed the changing events in Fiji fairly closely in a variety of roles over the past six years, I find it difficult to see how the tactics that have failed to have any influence on the course of Fiji’s return to democracy since the December 2006 military coup will work in the 18 months before Fiji is due to go to elections. And this view has been bolstered by a week in Suva talking with a range of people that included participants in the constitutional process, current and former members of Government and academics. More of the same intransigence simply will not to produce a different outcome.
The Bainimarama Government has neither deviated from the roadmap’s timing for the return to democracy that it announced in July 2009 and nor has it altered this timetable since Bob Carr became Foreign Minister. Still, it’s a welcome development that Carr apparently has accepted this—albeit at a fairly low level—but it’s far too late to have the sort of influence that was on offer at the beginning of 2008.
The deepening frustration with Canberra since July 2009 comes from seeing Australian Governments refusing to set incremental steps for returning to a balanced relationship; of being obdurate even to the point of reneging on an agreement. Fiji’s lifting of censorship rules, withdrawal of the public emergency regulations, registering of voters and starting of the constitutional process have all been greeted with ‘not enough’ from Canberra.
The Bainimarama Government nevertheless expected some improvement in relations after the July 2012 tripartite agreement between Australia, Fiji and New Zealand to restore High Commissioners and relax some visa sanctions. However, to its genuine disappointment, many in Government in Suva saw little real change. They smile wryly at Australian critics who interpreted Carr’s expression of understanding over some of the complexities of the drafting of a new constitution as example of unwarranted appeasement.
Understanding scarcely constitutes undeserved compassion in a sanctions regime against Fiji which includes elements that, arguably, would be illegal if applied domestically—such as those against family members of targeted officials. Indeed, within the Fiji Government, the travel sanctions against it are claimed to be more extensive than even those against Mugabe at his worst. Yet, for all their severity, the critics can’t point to a single positive instance where these sanctions have hastened the return to democracy in Fiji by so much as a day.
Seen from the Suva perspective, there hasn’t been a skerrick of public encouragement to mark the passing of the roadmap’s milestones to elections. The most recent disappointment was the denial of a visa to Aisake Taito, the chief executive of the Fiji National Provident Fund (a Government enterprise) and Bainimarama’s brother-in-law, who was to make a business trip to Australia at the end of December. Suva saw this as a clear breach of the July 2012 tripartite agreement. According to one commentator, it’s now highly likely that the Government’s response will be to refuse Margaret Twomey a chance to present her credentials as the first Australian High Commissioner to Fiji since James Batley was expelled in November 2009.
Whether anyone one in Canberra wants to admit it, Australia has suffered a retreat from influence within our region and its institutions; a decline of support from our neighbours in the United Nations; and diminished respect from key allies in the South Pacific on regional affairs. These foreign policy consequences for the contretemps between Australia and Fiji shouldn’t be used to excuse the weaknesses in the political processes of Fiji today but the critics, especially those so vocal in the Australian media, should be consistent in their expectations.
Even supporters of the Bainimarama Government have been disappointed that it hasn’t taken every opportunity to demonstrate the bona fides of its professed reformist goals. This includes, most recently, aspects of the constitutional process and the edict regulating political parties as well as a renewed activism by the Republic of Fiji Military Forces. Nevertheless, the present Government is the only game in town at least until 2014. Canberra needs to recognise this even as its South Pacific allies have already done. Moreover, Canberra needs to recognise and address the fact that Fiji has its own complaints against Australia.
It’s impossible to prove that a gentler, more engaged approach to the Bainimarama Government would have accelerated the return to democracy or made the path to democracy smoother. What’s undeniable is that the hard line approach advocated by critics over the years hasn’t prevented any of the adverse consequences of the toxic political relationship between the two countries. Indeed, it has contributed demonstrably to these outcomes. Failing to reset policy settings with regard to Fiji until ‘after free and fair elections in 2014’ merely demonstrates this ineffectiveness. Worse, where does Canberra go when elections are held under a constitution it regards as flawed by a process it deems biased? Does Australia rail against the result as not ‘free and fair’ and so maintain the sanctions that have had no effect?
It’s far too late to expect any great Australian influence on Suva’s charted course to the 2014 elections. But there’s much to be done to assist technically with the preparations for them, if Bainimarama will accept help now. If not, it’s still essential to prepare the ground for more effective relations after the elections. Hectoring from the bunkers is not only a demonstration of impotence; it is also preparing a grave for future relations.
Richard Herr is honorary director of the Centre for International and Regional Affairs, University of Fiji. Some of these themes will be explored more fully with regards to the broader implications for Australia’s security interests in Melanesia at RUSI’s forthcoming 2nd International Defence and Security Dialogue. Image courtesy of Flickr user Asia Society.